Thanksgiving 1949

Nov 1, 2011

By Al Zehnder, C.E.O. of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth

The story goes that my grandfather got into the restaurant business because he could no longer support his growing family through his small farm and slaughterhouse. I wonder if he really just didn’t like farming and the “animal processing” business all that much. I mean, one of the few reasons to get out of farming in 1928 was that one just didn’t have enough sons to help and he had six!

In addition, his father-in-law, Jacob Bickel with his only son John, were very successful farmers in the Frankenmuth area. Why not just pool your resources (money and sons) and join forces? My sense is that my grandfather had more of an interest in local politics than farming and the decision to sell the farm was probably met with little resistance from the six boys, even if it meant borrowing money to do it. Which they did.

So by December of 1928, they had sold the family farm, borrowed an additional $4,000 and bought the Exchange Hotel. The Exchange Hotel, originally built in 1856, sat directly across from Fischer’s Hotel. The Fischer family had developed the family style chicken dinner in Frankenmuth and, to my grandfather, their business seemed good. His business plan was a simple one, “If we can just get the overflow from Fischer’s, we should be able to make a go of it.”

After some remodeling to the exterior, to make it look more like George Washington’s home Mt. Vernon, Zehnder’s was open for business on Mother’s Day 1929. That day, they served 312 guests. The Zehnder family was in the restaurant business. Well business continued to be, generally good. While Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II and a variety of other hurdles tried to get in the way, both the Fischer’s and the Zehnder’s persevered. Although the Zehnder family approached the Fischer family from time to time regarding their interest in selling their business, they cordially declined. Both families enjoyed the friendly, good spirited competition.

Then came Thanksgiving 1949. Thanksgiving is a big day for business and, as usual, both restaurants had prepared food in anticipation of many hungry guests. Mother Nature, known to have little respect for business plans and holidays, created a large storm that dashed any hope for business.

My uncle, William Zehnder, Jr. (better known as Tiny), in addition to his duties at the restaurant, also collected garbage to feed his hogs. As he was collecting the garbage at Fischer’s, Elmer Fischer, still ruminating from the lost business and subsequent waste of food, said to him, “If you are still interested in buying, I am interested in selling.” And that’s how it happened. By January of 1950, the Zehnder family purchased Fischer’s Hotel and got into the restaurant business for the second time. Tiny, by the way, was made manager and he and his family grew the business to what it has become today. I’ll save those details for another story.

While I always pray for great weather on our busy days, sometimes just the opposite can change the course of the company. It did for ours. As Thanksgiving approaches, I remember how much I have to be thankful for and count my blessings each day. A great family, great employees, great guests, the ability to live in a great community in the greatest country in the world.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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